Almost Family. Roy Hoffman. The Dial Press, 1983.
By Trudier Harris
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1983, pp. 21-23
White mistresses and their black maids have intrigued many generations of American writers. From the stereotypical portraits of the nineteenth century, to Faulkner’s more individualized but basically stereotypical Dilsey, to Alice Childress’ sassy Mildred, both black and white American writers have depicted the relations of the cultural and racial phenomena which inform white women treating black women “like one of the family.” Roy Hoffman’s Almost Family is yet another novel exploring that relationship.
Set in Madoc, Alabama between 1946 and 1975, Almost Family is the story of the parallel lives of Vivian Gold and her maid, Nebraska Waters. It explores the relationship between the two women as their children age and leave them, as well as the crises involved in one being employed by the other. Although Vivian initially scoffs at having a maid, and is frequently uncomfortable with the situation, her Jewish liberalism will not allow her to deny completely the trends of the community in which she lives. Whatever she may think to the contrary, she does have a maid, and she is politely but firmly diligent in maintaining the ultimate distance between the maid and herself. The two women might be pregnant at the same time; they may share the pain both have suffered earlier through miscarriages (Nebraska has in addition had an abortion); and they may both be devoted wives and concerned mothers. Finally, though, Vivian is mistress and Nebraska is maid; Vivian is white and Nebraska is black. The differences can never be completely overlooked.
Vivian’s position as a minority member in the larger white community which will not allow Jews to join certain clubs may be designed to show her potential to understand Nebraska’s more extreme minority position in relation to the white community; however, Vivian and her husband Edward finally become members of that club and can ignore their Jewishness (as Edward does in his support of the racist candidacy of George Wallace) in favor of acceptance. Nebraska, on the other hand, cannot change her color; nor can she realistically work to change her educational and economic status. The parallel lives are only parallel to a point. Vivian has much more room for escape from oppressing circumstances than does Nebraska.
Hoffman’s novel is not only a chronicle of the lives of these two women and their families, it also records, through them, the changes in the political and social atmosphere of Alabama and the country between 1946 and 1975. There is a scene recounting the stand of George Wallace at the entrance to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa while Vivian’s second daughter, Rachel, is a student there. There is the account of Nebraska’s son Junior losing a leg in Vietnam. There is a gripping description of the tension and violence which erupted in Nebraska’s neighborhood on the evening of Martin Luther King’s death, and there is irony in the fact that Edward and his son Benjamin have just drive to Nebraska’s house and it is she who is put in the position of protecting them from angry blacks. There is also the tension surrounding integration as Benjamin and Nebraska’s daughter Viv (named for Vivian), the result of the parallel pregnancies, grow up in a world which has not allowed them to truly mix in public settings.
The novel is interesting and engaging, and some scenes, such as the night of King’s death and the cones-
quent death of Nebraska’s dauther, Wenda June, are particularly poignant. However, Almost Family depends primarily upon episodic, sketchy development rather than upon detailed portraiture of the two women. We see a lot of the women, over many years, but what we see remains close to the surface. There is little reflection. Ultimately, for Vivian, life goes on and, as it does, one needs a maid. Nebraska reveals deep resentments in blaming the Golds and other whites for the death of Wenda June, but these too are passed over. Hoffman trades depth for breadth in his novel, and he draws back from potentially explosive situations. There is a big crisis in one year which is not completely resolved, but the next chapter picks up two or three years in the future and may make only passing reference to that great crisis which has occupied us in the preceding chapter.
Hoffman understands the issues surrounding his subject, and he presents a substantial number of them, but he is ever polite in his presentation, and he ever strives, sometimes incredibly so, for peaceful, cooperative solutions. For example, Vivian’s liberalism leads her to invite Nebraska’s family to her summer home at the lake for an outing. When they all show up, tremendously uncomfortable with each other, Vivian complains about her invitation having been taken so literally (seven of the Waters family show up), and she does not have the slightest idea as to what to do with them. Both families are greatly relieved when the outing-turned-ordeal is over. “It’s all too confusing,” Vivian says, “all too confusing…. You try to be a mother, it’s hard. You try to be an employer, it’s hard. You try to be a friend, it’s hard. You try to be all three and it’s impossible.” Or consider what happens when Wenda June is arrested for trying to integrate the Woolsworth lunch counter in 1961. Instead of taking her to jail, two understanding policemen bring her to the Gold home to Nebraska and Vivian. As they discuss the matter with the policemen, who have blamed Wenda June’s action on her recent nervous breakdown, one of Vivian’s cousins emphasizes that the matter can be settled because “this ain’t the law . . . this is just family.”
But maids, as the title suggests, can never quite be family. Though claims to the contrary are consistently made by both Vivian and Nebraska, actions consistently undercut their claims. That is especially vivid when Benjie, freshly in college, writes an essay comparing Vivian and Nebraska as his two Jewish mothers. When he enthusiastically sends copies of his essay to Vivian, and to his sisters Sarah and Rachel, asking their advice about submitting it to the school journal, Sarah sends him a special delivery letter requesting that he not do so. Vivian in turn sends her a cryptic note: “Dear Sarah, Thank you. Love, Mother.” Vivian and Nebraska live primarily on the surface of polite relations. They dare not face overly long the distinctions that are theirs.
These two basically good women are caught in lifestyles and patterns of behavior which are larger than either of them. When they try to deny those patterns, it means discomfort and tension for both of them. Early in her employment at the Golds’ home, Nebraska had been tolerant if Vivian came home with her; then, following the disturbances of the civil rights days, there is a period of ten years during which Vivian does not visit. Unexpectedly, one evening when Vivian drives Nebraska home, she decides to go into the apartment. Insisting that she is “just family,” she rinses a glass and gets herself a drink, then she “ooos” and “ahhhs” and gushes over the apartment until Nebraska wants “to burst into tears.” Vivian comments on how well the numerous cast-aways she has given Nebraska look in her apartment, including one of the “filling-station glasses” that she “threw . . . out twenty-five years ago.” In one brief ten-minute swoop, Vivian has reduced Nebraska’s home to a perverse replica of her own: “Dear, being in your living room is like. being in a room right out of my own house! Isn’t that something?” It is truly something that Vivian cannot see beyond the surface of things, cannot see that it is partly because Nebraska must work in the financially limiting job of maid that she is forced to save all the Gold castaways. She cannot see that, in a matter of minutes, she strips from Nebraska all pride in her home, and she obviously influences the major decision Nebraska will make shortly.
Hoffman does see, and he understands considerably more than his characters do. One of the virtues of Almost Family is that Hoffman brings a sensitivity to the representation of relations across cultural and racial lines in the South. He stands back from all of his characters and recognizes the limitations in them. I get the feeling that he is also standing back from what he has written, knowing that there is much more to tell.
Trudier Harris, who teaches English and folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, grew up in Tuscaloosa. Her book, From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature, was published by Temple University Press in December, 1982.